[The Post Office has announced the closure of thousands of rural post offices. Northumberland has been hit particularly hard]
It’s frustrating trying to get the ear of a deaf government. When I chaired the producers’ trade body in the 90's, we tried to persuade Whitehall to give tax breaks to help the film industry. It was like teaching a goldfish to speak French.
So I feel for the rural post office campaigners. We know the government won’t back down: the horse has bolted and the stable door has already been thrown into a skip. Sure, the odd vocal campaign might deliver a short stay of execution, but the government has decided that the social arguments for post offices don’t outweigh the economic. So shut them down.
The response from individual communities has been special pleading. Take Belsay, for example. Last Thursday The Journal gave their campaign a whole page. Now I agree Belsay is a special case that deserves support. But I’m not sure it’s going to cut much ice, because the Post Office isn’t the real target.
They’re not going to be interested in the claim that “rural businesses depend on the post office for mail and banking”. Besides, as an argument it doesn't really stand scrutiny. Unless a business uses cash (in other words, is retail), it probably won’t need retail “banking services”. Apart from a cafe, and the village post office itself, there's not much need for retain. Most postal services can be delivered online, so the main commercial complaint is probably the ten minutes it takes to drive to the sorting office in Ponteland to drop off parcels. Not much of a financial case, really.
No, this debate isn’t commercial but societal. Belsay is one of the very best examples around. If Michelin published a village shop guide, Belsay would have three stars. I frequently divert there to pick up some fish (they’re supplied by Ridleys of Corbridge) or quality organic meat, or something interesting from their well-stocked deli. It’s obvious that the thriving Belsay shop is the epicentre of village life and its loss would destroy the heart of a community that the Belsay Trust has spent years trying to preserve. The post office occupies a small section of the shop and presumably contributes to its income. If its demise leads to the death of the shop, it would be a tragic loss.
So how should rural communities fight this deaf administration? I hope that Belsay wins its special case status. But what of the others? Perhaps when this war is lost, as it surely will be, they should regroup on a new battleground. The Post Office used purely commercial reasoning when it persuaded the government to lift its obligations towards rural post offices. However this battle is not about whether or not old people can get their pensions, but about the soul of village life itself. Imagine the national reaction if BT went to the government with a commercial argument for reducing the number of people they had to supply with telephones, or councils decided some people lived too far away from the council tip to have their dustbins collected, or the BBC decided it was too expensive to broadcast to people who live outside the major cities? It’s inconceivable because we all agree (for now) these are fundamental services that should be readily accessible to all. Now the government has decided the post offices are no longer essential. But what about a village shop? Can we argue that this is a human right? And if so, can we also create a financial argument for it?
That’s what we did with the film industry. We had a strong cultural argument: our children were being brought up on a diet of American movies, although much of the world’s filmmaking talent was British. It got a lot of backbench support, but the argument was too sentimental to get government backing. To make the Treasury listen, we created a robust financial model to prove that a thriving film industry would be a good thing for Britain. We eventually got our tax breaks, and the British film industry is now soaring. Today it was announced that home-grown movies earned £1.6billion around the world and the top 20 UK films grossed £244million at the British box office. Best of all, UK movies accounted for almost a third of all cinema tickets sold in Britain, up from one in twenty at the start of our campaign.
Surely a flourishing rural economy has got to be good for Britain too. So much of what is wrong in Britain is city-based. More people than ever want to go rural, but they want to live in communities not ghost villages. So maybe it’s the shop in Belsay, not the post office, which needs the help. Perhaps there should be special incentives to encourage investment in all kinds of village services, from pubs to hairdressers. The social argument is blindingly obvious. But to get government to listen, you need to demonstrate the economic benefits. To achieve this, we’d need to develop a financial model which proves how these services directly encourage inward investment and wealth, thereby safeguarding the future of rural England.